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CWD becoming more prevalent

An elk with chronic wasting disease.

Sun Advocate reporter

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) might not be widespread in Utah, but its prevalence is slowly becoming a problem.

Currently relatively little is understood about the disease and CWD research is an ongoing process which has led to some concern.

"In Utah, only about 1 or 2 percent of our deer herd has the disease, so it's really not that bad considering that, in other states, nearly 37 percent of a herd can be infected," said Leslie McFarlane, wildlife disease coordinator for Utah.

CWD infects mule/ white-tailed deer, elk and moose, and is widespread in other western states.

Since 2002 Utah, has only seen 43 confirmed cases with only one case being reported this year in the Manti La Sal national forest.

Although Carbon County has not had any confirmed cases this year, surrounding counties such as Utah County have experienced cases.

Hunters can help fight the disease by submitting carcass samples to the Utah State Division of Wildlife Resources, so that records of any spread may be kept.

"The disease is very slow moving, but there are not a lot of management options; we monitor our prevalence rates and prohibit carcasses from areas with infection," said McFarlane.

In terms of research, several breakthroughs have been made over the years regarding CWD, its causes and how it is spread. Recently, it was discovered that saliva from infected animals can spread CWD. This understanding will likely help contribute to eventually solving the overall problem.

According to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance, "There is currently no scientific evidence that CWD has or can spread to humans, either, through contact with infected animals or by eating meat of infected animals. The Center For Disease Control has thoroughly investigated any connection between CWD and the human forms of TSE's and stated "the risk of infection with the CWD agent among hunters is extremely small, if it exists at all" and "it is extremely unlikely that CWD would be a food borne hazard."

While no known risk of human infection is known to exist, health officials caution that exposure to infected animals should be avoided, since research is still ongoing.

McFarlane indicated that the Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) continues to track the disease and its spread through surveys and sampling efforts. They also encourage the public to help contribute to the effort by reporting the disease if they find it.

Symptoms of CWD, according to the CWDA, are obvious and consistent. One clinical sign is weight loss over time. CWD- affected animals continue to eat, but amounts of feed consumed are reduced, leading to gradual loss of body condition. Excessive drinking and urination are common in the terminal stages.

Behavioral changes also occur in the majority of cases, including decreased interactions with other animals, listlessness, lowering of the head, blank facial expression and repetitive walking in set patterns. In elk, behavioral changes may also include hyper-excitability and nervousness. Excessive salivation, drooling and grinding of the teeth are also observed.

Clinical signs of CWD alone are not conclusive. There are other maladies that have symptoms that mimic those of CWD. Currently, the only conclusive diagnosis involves an examination of the brain, tonsils or lymph nodes performed after death.

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